Autistic children SHOULD learn eye contact; it’s not “cruel” to teach them how to do eye contact and hold it. Avoidance of eye contact can be costly.
I’m autistic and favor learning eye contact, a crucial tool.
NOTE: The key word here is “learning.” It’s not about forcing.
For many autistic children, eye contact isn’t necessarily hurtful. Rather, it just doesn’t come naturally, or it’s distracting.
Why should we believe that these obstacles can’t be overcome?
I’ve read postings by autistic adults who said that they learned eye contact as a child – because if they didn’t give it to a parent, the parent would beat them.
One woman said her father would hit her in the face if she didn’t look him in the eyes.
I do NOT endorse this abuse. I’m sure they were beaten for many other things too such as missing a shot in an athletic event or not finishing their vegetables.
Furthermore, neurotypical kids who give solid eye contact can just as easily be victims of abuse at the hand of a parent.
Lack of eye contact doesn’t make a mom or dad abusive. The abusive nature is already there long before their autistic (or NT) child is born.
But just because there are parents who think nothing of taking a swing at a child or punishing them for not giving eye contact doesn’t mean that autistic kids should not learn eye contact.
Kids get beaten for failing to complete a song on a piano without a mistake. Does this mean that making kids take piano lessons is harmful? Of course not.
Eye contact CAN be taught to autistic children without harsh tactics.
Why should autistic children learn eye contact?
Not all autistic kids have difficulty meeting another’s eyes. I have clinically diagnosed ASD and never had problems looking at peoples’ eyes when they were speaking to me.
I’ve had correspondence with parents whose autistic children naturally gave good eye contact.
I’ve read in forums about toddlers, who gave good eye contact, being diagnosed with autism.
Nevertheless, for this spectrum disorder, there are other kids who find eye contact difficult.
They should be given lessons in how to meet the eyes of others at important times during interaction, and to hold the gaze for at least a few seconds frequently enough to avoid presenting as disconnected, bashful, vulnerable or easily bullied.
Now I’ll admit, I find it very challenging to maintain eye contact while I’M the one doing a lot of talking.
I must remind myself to return my gaze when I realize I’ve been looking away for too long while talking.
As a former personal trainer, I would give lengthy explanations to gym members about their fitness and weight loss goals, hoping to win them over as new clients.
What if I never had given eye contact while speaking?
Not a single one of them would’ve been convinced that I was capable of helping them reach their goals.
No eye contact would’ve meant being very unconvincing, no matter how dynamic my voice.
When I was a personal trainer, I had no idea I was autistic.
I just thought that my wandering eyes while talking to potential clients was just my logical response to the distraction of maintaining eye contact while explaining something.
But I realized that to sound convincing and to be taken seriously, I had to make sure to hold eye contact for several seconds every so often while speaking.
- We can’t change the world: Humans rely on eye contact.
- We need to make an effort to do enough of it to be successful in the business world.
I punctuate with my eye contact while long talking.
Kids who have a hard time focusing on their thoughts while talking, and holding eye contact at the same time, can learn to punctuate.
An example of punctuation is making brief eye contact at the end of every two or three sentences during a brief pause — simply inserting it in every so often.
This is important as part of presenting as self-assured and highly confident.
But what if eye contact is really, really uncomfortable?
What if the issue isn’t a distracting sensory overload, but something more sinister such as a tripping off of a fight-or-flight response or a feeling of absorbing too much energy from the other person?
Learning to hold eye contact at the right moments during interaction, then, will be more challenging. But this doesn’t mean impossible.
Eye Contact Is Crucial
What do you think the school bully, who’s on the prowl for his or her next victim, is looking for among their classmates?
A classmate who returns strong eye contact is less likely to be that bully’s next victim than is a classmate who consistently averts gaze.
I’m not saying that all victims of bullies avoid eye contact. Certainly, many are neurotypical and give great eye contact to their bully.
HOWEVER, when a classmate avoids eye contact with the bully, this will give more power to the bully.
And there’s something else to consider: bullying in the adult world.
Not only is gaze aversion a risk factor for being bullied or harassed as an adult, but it’s also a risk factor for failing to succeed in a face-to-face interaction.
Fast forward 20 years when your adult autistic child needs to solve a problem with a neighbor or roommate.
Perhaps the neighbor keeps “forgetting” to return a tool they borrowed.
Maybe the neighbor’s dog keeps barking early in the morning and waking up your hardworking grown child.
Maybe their roommate leaves messes everywhere or keeps using your kid’s personal items.
If your kid tries to resolve an issue while avoiding eye contact, the offender will not take them seriously and will think they’re a pushover.
- I have made people back off with eye contact alone; no words.
- Eye contact is a very powerful tool in this dog-eat-dog world.
If autistic kids don’t learn eye contact, this will come back to haunt them as adults.
For some, it may be on a very frequent basis, depending on their life circumstances, type of job, where they live, hobbies, etc. Imagine asking one’s workplace manager for a raise or making a suggestion to increase productivity — while avoiding eye contact.
And then there are all the other situations where eye ocntact really comes in handy, such as catching your server’s attention at a restaurant or trying to convince your doctor that you need an MRI.
The eye contact need not be long and staring, but rather, cleverly and strategically punctuated.
If your grown autistic kid wants that refund, and the store manager is being a jerk, don’t you think some good eye contact might just sway that manager?
Sometimes, a person’s voice just isn’t enough. One time at the gym, a man stood before me, while I was on a chest machine, and he said, “I want to use that machine in 15 minutes.”
I told him, while glaring into his eyes, “You’re going to have to wait your turn!” I got no further flak from him.
In common social situations where the stakes are low, eye contact can be relaxed.
But when push comes to shove, in this fierce world, it’s a crucial ability to have, especially for autistic people who may not be skilled in heavy verbal interactions.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical and fitness topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer. In 2022 she received a diagnosis of Level 1 Autism Spectrum Disorder.